I still remember that cod dish” said Cresci 10 days after our very long and large meal at Le Bernardin, where we had made plans to visit together more than a year ago but finally had the occasion to do so, him to celebrate his new job and me with my upcoming move. We chose Le Bernardin because we both share a love for the TV show “Top Chef” and an admiration for one of its frequent guest judge, the restaurant’s chef-owner Eric Ripert. While some of the chefs sometimes seem overly cocky or self-promoting, Chef Ripert always seemed down to earth, thoughtful and serious about his craft. Plus the food at his restaurant just looked so picture-perfect that we had, had to try it at least once.

Oyster flight

Oyster flight

Since it was a special occasion, we splurged on the chef’s tasting. An amuse of poached oyster with mushroom/truffle emulsion teased the palate with an initial metallic taste of oyster ending with a rich earthiness courtesy of the fungi. After that a generous tasting of 6 kumamotos, not particularly big but fresh and sweet, each topped with a different gelee in a progression from mild to robust flavors.

Egg - Caviar

Egg - Caviar

Next a simple but decadent dish, a poached egg topped by pearly grains of osetra caviar, much sweeter than the more commercial and less expensive variety. Love the contrasts of texture between the liquid silk of the creamy yolk and the pop of caviar roe in the mouth.

Scallop

ScallopThe scallop dish with goat cheese was probably the dish that made me think, but also probably my least favorite. Even though the scallop was seared ultra-rare, I tend to prefer my scallops raw. The emulsion was also kind of weird and eh...Halibut

A simple dish of poached halibut then served with a light gingery broth showed off the pristine piece of fish. A mix of cooked turnips and raw radish halves, the ginger base and black sesame seeds took the dish on an Asian route, very pleasant although not too exciting for my palate.

Cod

Cod

The next course though, and those afterwards where all winners. The cod finally arrived, perfectly pan fried with just a light crust. The servers poured the squid ink sauce table side with a flourish, but even before the sauce even hit the plate, I could smell that briny, minerally iodine scent characteristic of the sea. Bright orange pepper puree artistically dotted around the plate provided not just color contrast, but sweetness and tied in beautifully with the lightly pickled rounds of pepper arranged on the fish. Like the best piece of fish and chips declared Cresci. I couldn’t agree more. The side of roasted pepper stuffed with rice and squid was ignored as we eagerly dove into the fish, wanted to dredge bread across that addictive sauce.

Surf and Turf

Surf and Turf

 

 The sauces at Le Bernardin are impressive, and the anchovy based sauce that came with the next dish, the famous surf and turf was truly beautiful, rich and complex with just a faint whiff of anchovy. The sauce paired well with both meat and fish, cutting the richness of the marbled sliver of seared kobe and the rich and fatty escolar. But the star was the sauce, definitely a sauce I would gladly eat on its own. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when they serve a dish with my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, here presented fried and dusted with a light sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.  

Fromage Blanc

Fromage Blanc

 Which brings us to dessert. Here’s a good place to also talk about the physical restaurant and service, which have been oft-maligned as charmless and cold respectively. True, the restaurant rather resembles a corporate dining room especially with the suited diners looking as though they are cutting deals whilst dining, and would not be my top 10 picks of romantic spots to eat in the city. The service while correct, is not as negative reviews have portrayed. Both the sommelier and servers were very happy to answer queries and engage in conversation. In fact, just before our pre-dessert amuse of fromage blanc arrived, our server and I launched into a short but spirited discussion of the light, tart cheese, and she made arrangements that Cresci and I got to taste different preparations of it. True to spirit, Cresci enjoyed the honey and walnut version while I practically devoured the girlier, strawberry version.

Egg

Egg

Later, as we were munching our petit fours and sipping coffee, I made a passing remark about pastry chef Michael Laisokonis’ egg dessert. Moments lately, it appeared magically, in its full chocolate, caramel, fleur del sel glory on our table. Yummy! Of course, not to give the actual dessert short shrift, we enjoyed a decadently chocolately mousse paired with a chicory flavored ice-cream that tempered the sweetness of the chocolate and gave the dish an added herbal licorice dimension. I love simple desserts and appreciated how the chef didn’t mar the composition with too many components.

Chocolate Chicory

Chocolate Chicory

We walked out happy, heavy and with the memory (aided by a menu) to last for a while.

Le Bernardin

155 W 51st St (Between 5th & 6th Ave)

www.le-bernardin.com

 

 
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bread & gougeres

bread & gougeres

First impression of steak tartare came courtesy of Mr Bean, on his “travels” to neighboring France on the eponymous show. Judging from the wild antics that ensued, there was no doubt he was more than a little perturbed by the mound of chopped raw beef. Thank goodness I share none of his squeamishness, because a good version of steak tartare, with quality hand chopped meat mixed in with sharp, tangy accoutrements including onions and my favorite capers is a light, refreshing meal. The most traditional accompaniment is golden pomme frites, making the dish even more so appealing. Benoit, a member of the Alain Ducasse empire serves steak tartare, which was exactly what I ordered, a little too dressed for my taste but still a tasty treat on a wet Saturday afternoon.

My friends whom I was lunching with picked the lunch special, an absolute deal at a mere $19 for 2 courses and $24 for 3. The menu, while severely truncated provided enough choice with only one clunker that afternoon, a very pedestrian slab of pate. Otherwise, everything else were delicious, the salmon en croute delectably moist yet with a flaky, buttery shell while yc’s slow baked pork butt had a super tender consistency reminiscent of bbqed pull pork. The red and yellow room, dressed in the classic Gallic brasserie style was bright and cheery, but serene enough on a relatively slow afternoon for us to relax, chat and eat. Remarkably, service is attentive and warm, quite unlike what I’ve read in other media and expecting. So I’ve never made it to the original in Paris, but its American facsimile ain’t bad either!
Post lunch, Cezi and I adjourned to Saks where I introduced her to one of Britain’s oldest chocolate maker, Charbonnel et Walker’s cafe for some respite from the relentless rain. The lovely cafe, hidden away in a corner of the 8th floor of Saks is an oasis of calm compared to the frantic energy of the designer shoe salon right next to it. Loubutins at 400 are cheaper than loubies at 900, but it still means I can’t afford them. Thank God for affordable luxuries like chocolate! Besides truffles and bon bons, one can also order sinfully rich chocolate based drinks and enjoy fresh pastries such as a rich brownie and butter croissants. The ganaches are pretty decently, but the shell was much too thick. Its a good stop when you’re in the neighborhood, but not something that’s going to make me give up going to Kee’s or La Maison. Still, a good place to rest and conduct post-mortem on one’s purchases, and definitely a place to impress!  

Benoit

60 W 55th St (Between 5th and 6th Aves)

http://www.benoitny.com/index.html

Charbonnel et Walker

611 5th Ave (8th Flr)

http://www.charbonnel.co.uk/erol.html#758X0

The stars were aligned that star-struck night in Las Vegas. First a very good meal at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the famed celebrity chef’s (he of 25 Michelin stars) LV outpost in the MGM Grand, and then Wang Lee Hom’s stupendously awesome concert in the same casino.

Ever the deal seeker, I found that L’Atelier was having a $75 5-course prix-fixe. Considering a small plate costs anywhere between $20-40, this was a great deal. I did find it a little disingenuous that the server only presented us the regular menu, and only gave us the special menu after we had asked. Restauranters, please be more honest with your customers. Thank you. However, it is noted that we were not discriminated service-wise, and the meal flowed smoothly and pleasantly as my sisters and I sat at the characteristic bar overlooking the open kitchen, ogling at the beautiful plates of food that came out.

 
foie gras panna cotta

foie gras panna cotta

We chewed our basket of mini-loafs with restrain and started with an amuse bouche of foie gras panna cotta, the richness of the liver cut by sweet balsamic vinagrette reduction and savoryness enhanced by parmesan foam. Tasty, though a little heavy though for an amuse.
Les legumes

Les legumes

Our first course was a beautifully composed plate of sweet grilled vegetables layered with fresh buffalo mozzarella, so soft it still oozes milk. Very provencal, down to the basil pesto, and tasty enough that it would make Ruoying, who usually abhors eggplant, clear the plate.
langoustine

La langoustine

Next was a famous L’Atelier dish, a single fritter of langoustine wrapped in brik pastry. The meat was so soft, so sweet, like eating a very delectable lobster dish, with the single basil leaf wrapped within the fritter providing a light herbal fragrance.
L'Onglet

L'Onglet

 A choice of mains were made and Ruoying and I decided on a substantial cut of hangar steak, cooked nicely rare and while not tender, very flavorful, particularly with the simple grilled shallot topping. Ruoyi went for the cod fish, a well cooked piece of fish swimming in a Basque inspired pepper stew.

robuchon's famous mashed potatoes

robuchon's famous mashed potatoes

Our mains came with a side of Robuchon’s most famous pommes puree, aka mashed potato. Or should I say, mashed butter with some potato, it was so creamy, so rich, a few spoons were all we could muster.
A stunning array of tarts

A stunning array of tarts

followed by ices

followed by ices

We then ate a trio of cheese, the semi-soft funky Livarot most memorable, before dessert time. Not surprisingly, the dessert selection within the prix fixe is limited and less complex than others found in the ala carte menu, but the tart and ice cream  plates are definitely top notch in terms of variety and flavor. I loved all 6 of my tart slivers excepting the overtly cinnamony one, while Ruoyi’s icecream flavors were all intense and true, especially the pinkish litchee sorbet. Too often had I tasted artificial litchee, and I am glad a restaurant of L’Atelier’s caliber managed to find some real, sweet fruit to turn into tasty treats.
While the special prix-fixe is not a good benchmark of a typical meal, which would likely run at least 2 times more expensive, we got to try some signature dishes that gave me a glimpse of the potential of a truely decadent meal. With so many restaurants in so many cities, I am sure I will be dining at another Robuchon establishment sometime in the future.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon Las Vegas
MGM Grand
Itzocan Cafe is a literal hole-in-the wall in my neighborhood, possibly narrower than my wingspan. It is uncomfortably packed, the table Angela and I sat in this past week was so close to the edge of the exit it would have fallen out the door had it not been closed. The room is quite an eyesore, the interiors looking like a bag of souvenirs from Mexico had exploded in it, from the floor to ceiling wall of  faux bricks that channel Aztec ruins to a print of Frida Kahlo with a bemused smile. Furthermore, ventilation is horrible, and my sweater still smells of Thursday’s dinner. Yet, in a neighborhood packed with eateries, it is perpetually popular. Why?
Perhaps it is the idea, that French culinary techniques and Mexican ingredients together could create a successful fusion cuisine. Or it is the honest plates of food, generous in serving size and flavors. The signature corn souffle appetizer arrives at the table steaming hot and flavored with an earthy scent of huitlacoche and truffles, both new and old world. Angela’s braised flank steak on this meal was fork tender and doused with a rich sauce reminiscent of boeuf bourguinon while my bowl of semolina dumplings, tomato, corn and grilled jalapeno satisfied my craving for a spicy, soupy meal. Admittedly though, this is a dish best eaten during summer, when the corn is sweeter and tomatos tangier. If it is neither the appetizers or the entrees, perhaps it is the desserts, effectively using very Mexican ingredients to good effect again. You will not be bored by its version of the warm flourless chocolate cake, made in this instance with Mexican chocolate that impart a subtly cinnamon flavor. The caramel sauce is enhanced with the scent of roasted hazelnuts. Only vanilla icecream would have made it better. The flans and creme caramels are straight forward and delicious and I really look forward to trying the blue corn crepes next time.
Itzocan Cafe is definitely not your typical south-of-the-border joint and thus not for anyone looking for a taco or burrito. But rice, beans and tortillas do not Mexican cuisine make, and a meal here should definitely convince you.
 
Itzocan Cafe
438 E9th St (Bet 1st Ave and Ave A)

Dad’s birthday coincided with the trip, and while he had to spend the actual day on the flight home, we decided to pre-celebrate his 55th in a place fitting for the occasion. Taillevent, holder of Michelin stars for 60 years seemed a natural choice.

The cork off our bottle and Taillevent's wine card

The cork off our bottle and Taillevent's wine card

The meal starts off with a warm welcome at the door by the maitre’d, who led us into the main dining room, one dressed in oak wood panels, neither too formal nor intimate. Perfect for business lunches, as many of our fellow diners seemed to be doing. Warm, cheesy gougeres appeared on our table while we considered the menu, a plate on each side of our four-top to prevent potential fights over the extra gougere. Our bread plates were freely filled by the conscientious bread steward, both white and wheat versions excellent, warm to the touch, crusty and with pillowy soft crumb. In general, service was excellent, from my email correspondence to the warm welcome by the maitre’d at the door, and the proper but not oppressive service by servers who seemed happy to serve, neither trying too hard to be your friend, nor coldy snobbish. Taillevent is known for its amazing cellar, and besides an impressive wine menu, they also provided a small card listing the different varietals and their most desirable age, a cheat sheet of sorts for the lesser vinophiles.  Since it was a celebratory meal, we splurged on a 2000 vintage Volnay, smooth and restrained, no outsized flavors and pleasant with meat.
Game aspic and mushroom cream

Game aspic and mushroom cream

The amuse bouche was a cold aspic made with game, topped by mushroom creme. Ma hated it, I thought it was alright, nothing distinguishing.
lobster + eggs

lobster + eggs

We had 3 choices of both appetizers and entrees from the 80Euro lunch set. Pa and I picked badly for entrees, the white bean soup with ravioli was too sour, too cheesy and thick, and ravioli undercooked. But Mum and Pak’s appetizers were heavenly, Mum’s scrambled eggs infused with the concentrated sweetness of lobster in every bite.
Foie Gras

Foie Gras

Pak’s foie gras was as traditional as it came, a thick puck with a jam based top, served with what else? brioche toast. I totally had plate envy, it was very yummy.
Scallops with spinach puree

Scallops with spinach puree

Veal chops

Veal chops

Ma’s scallops and our veal were well cooked but not impressive at all.
Hazelnut chocolate cake with amaretto ice cream

Hazelnut chocolate cake with amaretto ice cream

Pineapple napoleon

Pineapple napoleon

A cheese course preceded dessert, where three of us picked the sinfully rich, chocolately dacquoise packed with nutty flavor, while dad went for a pineapple based dessert, pineapple being one of his favorite fruit. Before dessert, the servers brought out an oversized glass sculpture with candles for my dad to blow out. Oddly, it was not a cake or even anything edible. Oh well.
petit fours

petit fours

Petit fours were passed around at the end of our 2+ hour lunch, a plate for each of us to prevent disagreements. Classy. Of the 5 bites, the peanut brittle and sesame seed tuile resembled chinese desserts and the fruit pastille tasted like haw flakes. Big hits with my parents of course.

In summary, a good meal with exemplary service, but I can’t help but feel disappointed by the pedestrian cooking, reminiscent more of a high-end hotel buffet than a 2 star restaurant. I was not expecting anyone to reinvent the wheel, still, I had hoped for something special.

Taillevent

15 Rue Lammenais, Paris

www.taillevent.com

For a self-avowed foodie, a trip to Paris did not seem complete without a pilgrimage to a Michelin starred restaurant, preferably 3 starred. I picked L’Astrance after consulting with the boyfriend, and once we roped in a French speaking friend to secure the reservations a month in advance, we were set for my first encounter with haute cuisine in Paris.

Astrance is tucked away in an unassuming corner of th 16th arrondisement, a cozy room fitting 26 diners of which we were two at lunchtime. L’Astrance is also known for innovation and value in the realms of haute gastronomy. 3 surprise menus are available at lunchtime, the 70 euro 3-course option, the $120 6 course meal, and the $190 option that ensures you will leave with groaning from indigestion. Expensive but not astronomical. We prudently went for the middle ground (but not frugal enough to consider the smallest option), and still left eating an extraordinary amount of excellent food, from amuse bouche to mignardises.  

Foie Gras and Mushrooms

Foie Gras and Mushrooms

The first appetizer after little amuse bouches of fruit and nut nibbles and an indian themed carrot and yogurt shooter was the iconic mille feuille of foie gras and mushroom, where wafer thin layers of raw sliced mushrooms ensconce slabs of room temperature foie, over a sweet pastry base. The mushroom/foie wedge was layered and cut with surgical precision, and the taste, light, yet earthy and fungal at the same time. P’s sweet riesling paired well, and was one of our favorite of the 7 pours he got that afternoon.

scallops

scallops

A pair of scallops sat prettily with a cooked salad of radishes, turnips and edible flowers, evoking not winter but spring. A duo of purees, one peanut and the other citrus reminded me of gado gado for some reason.

shellfish in yuzu broth

shellfish in yuzu broth

The south-east asian theme seemed to extend into the fish course, a perfectly cooked piece of whitefish sitting on a peanuty base. I was most impressed however with the bowl of shellfish broth that came with the fish. Till now I remember the sensation of unnaturally sweet raw clam slithering down my throat, the concentrated flavors of the cold bonito-based broth enlivened by a fragrant yuzu oil.  

lentils, pepper and jabugo

lentils, pepper and jabugo

Chef Barbot is unafraid of incorporating global flavors, and the next dish, AOCed lentils with chorizo accents and an a slice of cured ham is thoroughly Spanish. I wish I had rice or toast to sop up the lentils, sauce and all. The meat course is usually always the most boring, but we loved our intensely flavored grilled veal, served simply with some meat sauce and fried leeks. The shiraz paired there was another high point.

one of 6 desserts

one of 6 desserts

Dessert is usually my favorite part of the meal, and L’Astrance’s line up with very strong, with 6 desserts from a grapefruit custard to a sugar cylinder layered with a sesame tuile. My favorite was a meringue roll-up filled with citrus cream. Least favorite? A fruit bowl, novelty for caucasian diners, but rote at Chinese restaurants. To add insult to injury, the lychees weren’t even that sweet!

L’Astrance is the smallest of the 3-star restaurants in the city, possible the most casual too, with a decor that is bright, modern but pedestrian and good but often slow service, given only 3 front-of-house members rather than the army of waitstaff we encountered at Taillevent later that week. The fact that we were seated in a small loft area above the main dining room, aka restaurant Siberia and had to fight to get the waitstaff’s attention did not help. However, the food is top notch and P and I relished each moment of it, of Paris, good food, the two of us and our plans to chase our Michelin etoiles!

L’Astrance

4 rue Beethoven

http://lastrance.abemadi.com/fr/r/Paris/132/

a train of marrons

a train of marrons

I am no vinophile, not even a particularly enthusiastic drinker. So wine was not first in my mind when I floated the idea to P to hang out in Beaune for the weekend. Instead, the thing that captured my imagination was the food, especially the food fair with all sorts of gustatory delights advertised in various blogs. The food must be good, I rationalized. After all, Burgundy is the purported stomach of France.

Escargot!

Escargot!

 

 

 

The food fair was as good as I imagined. The advertisements did not lie. Imagine a New York street fair, without the mundane stalls selling socks and knockoff bags, strip out the ubiquitous kebab stand and the badly made crepe trucks, take away cotton candy and kettle corn. Replace the dirty water dog carts with cauldrons of steaming andouillette and merguez, add stalls dedicated to the sale of mushrooms fresh and dry, organic honey, and macarons; standkeepers giving out samples of foie gras on toast; crowds huddling around picnic tables extracting fat nubs of escargot meat from their shell while sipping glasses of local wine.  It being late fall/early winter, glasses of hot spiced wine and bags of warm toasted chestnuts were also readily available. That would be Beaune’s food fair. For 2 days we eschewed sit-down lunches in favor of incessant munching on the go. Sunday’s lunch read like this: a plate of buttery fried frogs’ legs, a thick slab of jambon persille – chunks of smoked ham encased in a radioactive green parsley aspic, a loaf of fresh baked baguette and for dessert, half a dozen of freshly shucked oysters. The family sitting next to our park bench were spooning creamy cheese onto bread and feeding their kids Camembert and Brie. That’s my idea of a picnic!

deconstructed oeufs meurette

deconstructed oeufs meurette

For dinner, we relied on the suggestions of our lovely innkeeper, Mdm Grillon of Hotel Grillon, who even helpfully made our reservations given our limited (nonexistent for me) French. We had dinner at L’Ecusson on our first night at Beaune, where we landed an hour ahead of our reservation due to a rapidly losing battle to jet lag. Being the first to arrive, we got to relax in the elegant ochre colored room and enjoyed the full attention of the charmingly hospitable front of house. The meal, innovative and delicious helped lift our flagging spirits some more. I was expecting my oeufs meurette to resemble other oeuf meurettes I’ve eaten, poached eggs in red wine broth. Instead, I got a trio of bites, a most satisfyingly earthy puree of mushrooms topped with a wobbly raw yolk and a sprig of chive, thick slices of bacon on a sesame toast, and a shot of vin chaud. Our mains were a contrast of heavy and light. P selected coq au vin for his main dish and was rewarded with a rich, almost inky stew of wine cooked chicken with its usual accoutrements of pearl onions and mushrooms whereas my perch was simply pan-seared and served on a bed of diced tomato, zuchinni and a tinge of citrus that summoned memories of a warm summer’s day instead of a chilly fall night. We ended the night with a round of cheese and the best baba rum P’s had.  A great deal for less than 30 Euros each, not including wine. We walked back to the hotel drowsy and full, thanking our lucky stars that our hotel is a good 1 km away from the town center, allowing us to digest while we strolled home.

tarte tatin

tarte tatin

On the second night, Madam Grillon had booked a table at La Ciboulette, a very popular bistro location on quiet side street of Beaune. La Ciboulette excels at traditional Burgundian cuisine in a relaxed setting, and compared to the calm elegance of L’Ecusson, the dining rooms at La Ciboulette were a picture of activity, with servers weaving around packed tables of diners delivering platters upon towering platters of food. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when in Beaune, it means toasting to an aperitif of kir, a pretty pink cocktail of local aligote wine and cassis. The appetizers came after our welcome plate of olives were polished off, for me two thick slabs of foie gras mi cuit served with warm toast, and for the boyfriend liquid cashmere, incarnated in his dish of quenelles, morels and sweetbreads enrobed in a most luxuriously creamy butter and cream sauce that was heart attack inducing but worth every sip. I won the main course challenge, for although P enjoyed his simple dish of huge seared scallops, my steak charolaise was spectacular, cooked a point and full of savory meat juices. The sliced fresh Burgundy truffles were just icing on the cake, imparting a light earthy aroma to the sauce. A platter of stinky cheeses including the lovely Citeaux and a big slab of Epoisses (smells like wet socks, but tasting much milder) and a bowl of fromage blanc later, we attacked our desserts as though we were starving, my Tarte Tatin beautifully golden brown, with a firm crust and the cooked apple disintegrating in my mouth effortlessly while P had his first creme brulee for the trip, with a rich pistachio taste but unfortunately a little charred. For $38 per person, a lot of deliciousness. No wonder La Ciboulette was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand designation in the most recent guide.

Of course, we did touristy things while not stuffing ourselves silly, visiting the well restored hospice and following the many roving brass bands in colorful costumes as they marched through the streets of Beaune playing upliftingly loud tunes. But even without the festivities, I still expect Beaune to be worth a visit regardless of seasons, particularly for the eaters and drinkers of the world.

Names and websites:

Hotel Grillon

http://www.hotel-grillon.fr/

L’Ecusson

http://www.ecusson.fr/

La Ciboulette

http://www.viamichelin.co.uk/viamichelin/gbr/dyn/controller/poiPerformPage?productId=41102&id=901